The stories that keep shaping us

When everything is polemic, perspective is best restored by rereading old favourites

March 27, 2016 01:25 am | Updated October 18, 2016 01:43 pm IST

“There’s nothing grimmer than fairy tales for life lessons.” Picture shows a Harry Potter fan in Sydney.

“There’s nothing grimmer than fairy tales for life lessons.” Picture shows a Harry Potter fan in Sydney.

What is it we learn about the world through books, even magical tales and alternative realities? The benefits of reading the driest non-fiction are usually taken as a given, but what about stories and storybooks, as a generation of us grew up calling them?

How else do we learn our humanity? Can you be a sentient being without having the distilled wisdom of thousands of stories in your bloodstream? Does humanity have a chance without its writers and poets? Uncensored, that is.

Back to basics

My brother is part of the generation that really started reading with Harry Potter, so if pushed, I would casually imply I used to read Rowling in solidarity, as a shared interest. You know, very What is it kids are reading these days ? Never mind that the pretence was totally shattered by the time The Prisoner of Azkaban came out.

Doing a news story on the Potter phenomenon back in the day, I spoke to a sociologist who told me about the importance of fairy tales in a community, as a means to talk to children about the darker side of life… such as the actuality of death. There’s nothing grimmer than fairy tales for that sort of life lesson. The Potter series also faces very tough realities head-on, including the death of our young hero’s parents. Rowling deals masterfully with bullying and racism, highlighting the courage required to stand up to both. Anyone who’s felt like a misfit, anyone who’s ever been picked on (even if not by the most evil of dark lords) could identify.

Of course, Rowling’s series is also a magnificent ode to love and friendship. But I increasingly wonder whether that is humanity’s biggest strength, or if will prove to be our biggest delusion. Can love conquer all? If you look around, it seems increasingly unlikely.

Speaking from a world of privilege, the English-speaking urban class is caught in a maelstrom of vitriol. Everything is polemic. The conversations, such as they are, all too easily degenerate into violence. We don’t want to listen to anyone who doesn’t mimic our exact points of view, and Twitter has become the echo chamber of echo chambers, convincing us that we — not them — are the majority.

Luckily hashtags aren’t the real world and presumably people will eventually find their sense of self, and push back against the goons who are taking matters into their own hands. All those self-appointed guardians of the pure and holy who are resorting to violence will eventually have to be dealt with, not just by organs of the state machinery, but also in the realm of ideas. That’s where the real battles are — Left versus Right, my nationalism versus your patriotism.

And just as people are being urged to go back and read our Constitution, I would say, go even further back. Remember that magical place of epics and myths? Stories your grandmother would tell you about defenceless animals outwitting bullying predators? Birds versus marauding tigers? The clever fox versus the greedy lion? Mythology? Comic books? I dare anyone to read the Amar Chitra Katha on Luv and Kush and not feel the terrible injustice of Sita’s fate as decreed by her husband.

Gender bias and social justice in a comic book, imagine? Of course, in this present day and age of extreme politicisation and jingoism, we might be asking for trouble by continuing that particular conversation. But until you talk about the very things that disturb you — whether it’s the death of a loved one or countless deaths due to starvation, the targeting of people presumed guilty until proven innocent or the politics of your hitherto closest friend — until we can talk about difficult issues, there’s no real point in pretending to have a conversation.

It’s possible, if we only remembered how, to think and discuss the most meaningful things, without taking ourselves too seriously.

Three life lessons from stories, then. Empathy, courage and imagination. All powerful tools, perhaps the most essential ones to navigate life — even in these perilous times, when so many of us have not an iota of interest in listening to divergent points of view. There couldn’t be a more critical time. Read so you can reach within, so you can remember what it is to listen to another point of view, not just blindly ‘like’ or ‘RT’ into the void.

Done? Read more

Madeleine L’Engle taught me so much with A Wrinkle in Time , perhaps without me even realising it as a child. What a revelation that these slightly weird siblings Charles Wallace and Meg, with their issues in and out of school, could redeem themselves and be heroes, despite not being remotely mainstream or cool. They face their own demons and some fairly hairy intergalactic beasties in acts of tremendous courage. (Mrs Who, Mrs Whatsit and Mrs Which were fascinating in and of themselves.)

What about courage to say you’re wrong? And how about the lesson that we’re all flawed? Even if you were busy tackling Pride and Prejudice to satisfy your crush on Mr. Darcy, while identifying with Elizabeth Bennett, what a blow to the system to have to examine your own prejudices and biases — wait, what, we all have them? And pride? Interesting concept!

I might never forgive Jo and Laurie for not getting together, but in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women , you learn something profound too about going beyond the superficial. Do you remember Amy and her obsession with her nose? I’m pretty sure she’d be right at home in our selfie-taking, constantly Instagramming world. Jo’s character is probably the most fleshed out and the most inspiring, from a young girl’s point of view. Beauty and brains? Check. It was slightly annoying that she used to keep getting rapped for her independent streak, but again, bring her to the 21st century and aspects still resonate.

Look for the women

You may not know any druids, but who doesn’t love them? From Gandalf to Getafix, I was always reassured that there were wise old souls in the landscape who could set things right. Not just wisdom-filled about the mysteries of the universe, either, they have a sense of humour and are more than willing to get their hands dirty, when required. Of course now, I realise there should have been way more women in these roles too… but it’s never too late to start.

(Amrita Tripathi, a freelance journalist, is the author of The Sibius Knot and Broken News .)

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